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South Hill council visits fire station for answers on fitness center request

Members of the South Hill Fire Committee view the fitness center at the South Hill Fire Department station. Shown are fire committee chair Lillie Feggins-Boone and members Delores Luster and Shep Moss, with Town Manager Kim Callis and South Hill Fire Chief Michael Vaughan. / June 23, 2021
A meeting of South Hill Council Town Council fire committee on Monday turned heated over the Town’s handling of a request to install a gym for firefighters at the South Hill fire station.

Members of the fire committee gathered at the South Hill fire station to tour an unused kitchen space that volunteer firefighters want to convert into a fitness room. Following the June meeting of the full Council, Fire Committee chair Lillie Feggins-Boone, at the suggestion of Vice Mayor Mike Moody and council member Ben Taylor, asked the other members of the panel to tour the space before making a recommendation whether to support the project.

Neither Moody nor Ben Taylor, who are not members of the fire committee, was present at the SHVFD station on Monday. Feggins-Boone was joined by Town Manager Kim Callis and the other two members of her committee, Delores Luster and Shep Moss. Council member Gavin Honeycutt was also present.

During the regular Council meeting, members voted 6-2 against the installation of fitness equipment, saying the fire committee had to first review and recommend approval of the changes even though no public dollars were involved.

Funding for the project was part of a bequest made to the South Hill Volunteer Fire Department by long-time members Carolyn and Jack Rainey.

Several times during Monday’s meeting, Callis said his reticence to go forward with renovation of the former fire department kitchen had to do with the project’s timing. “This is in their FY 2023 plan,” he said.

Fire Chief Michael Vaughan responded, “At that time [fiscal year 2023] we would have asked for funding from the town.” The failure of a suppression system at the station coupled with the donation of funds from the Raineys allowed them to move up the schedule and install the fitness facility sooner than anticipated.

Callis repeatedly said he was not informed that renovations were being made to the fire station. “I found out that it was already happening by accident. Didn’t know it was going on.” Vaughan disagreed, saying he notified Callis of the failed fire suppression system on March 11.

The third reason Callis gave for withholding immediate approval of the project was procedural. He explained, “Okay, whenever you have a facility and you make repairs or maintenance or do something that doesn’t change the functional use of that facility, usually we go along. This” — the fitness room — “it changes the entire use of it,” Callis said.

“And we thought, and I was not the only one, when we saw the drawing, we thought the entire space was going to be renovated and we just said, ‘hold on, let’s just hold on a second.’ Everybody is in favor of that but we have to go about it the right way.”

This brought a sharp retort from Travis Kidd, a member of the fire department, who said, “So all the other stuff that was done downstairs at other times at a town facility, that wasn’t taken to Council? So was the police department with their renovations or how about the town shop that you’re getting ready to build, is a committee meeting with that?”

Callis said the difference in treatment among the departments had to do with the scope of the work performed. “At the police department they got CARES Act money. They did not change the function of that facility one bit. They added a wall to make it more secure for the public and the police department. That’s just one example,” Callis said.

Kidd responded, “It seems like the meetings all surround around you, Mr. Callis. And everything that slows down around is you.”

South Hill resident Crystal Finch also expressed frustration with the treatment of the fire department, asking Callis, “What is your problem with the fire department? It seems like you have a riff with the fire department.”

Vaughan opened the tour by explaining the circumstances that led volunteers to seek approval for a gym at the fire station. He said the kitchen was removed by fire department volunteers in March after a fire suppression system failed and dumped toxic chemicals in the room. According to Vaughan, it would have cost the town or the department more than $60,000 to replace the kitchen, which was not needed because in 2011 the department converted one of its truck bays on the first floor into a commercial kitchen.

Vaughan said the firefighters felt they could not justify the expense, especially since the department already has a commercial kitchen on the first floor.

Instead, SHVFD members voted to use monies bequeathed to the fire department by Jack and Carolyn Rainey to install a fitness room at the fire house. When finished, the room will be dedicated in their memory.

Vaughan said that he was ready to answer any questions Council members had about the space that was being remodeled, and to clear up confusion over what work was to be done and where that would take place.

“We are not going to change anything about this space,” Vaughan said as fire committee members and Callis stood in a large meeting room on the second floor of the fire station that abuts the proposed gym. Callis said previously that there had been some confusion as to where the gym would be located.

On a drawing that Vaughan submitted in support of the department’s request, Callis had written, “weight machines?” next to the images of meeting room tables shown in Vaughan’s illustration. Callis said he made this notation before sending copies of the drawing with his notes to members of Council.

Feggins-Boone asked about the drawing, wanting an explanation for the “little black boxes” — pointing to the black squares Vaughan had drawn in the meeting room area on the illustration. Vaughan replied, “Those are tables and chairs.”

“We didn’t know,” Callis said. “I think it was the understanding of everyone who saw it, that it wasn’t just that space” — referencing the former kitchen that adjoins the meeting room.

Callis acknowledged he never contacted Vaughan for clarification of his drawing before making his notes on the drawing and sending it off to Council members for their consideration.

The exchange prompted Moss to ask if Vaughan had submitted photographs of the space to be altered along with the original request to install the fitness equipment.

Vaughan replied “yes” and added Callis never sent copies of the photos to the members of Council. The reason for that, he said, “they were just photos of the demo that was going on in the kitchen.” To that, Moss replied, “That’s what the whole question was.” Callis later said he “assumed” Vaughan had sent the photos to Council members.

When Vaughan handed Moss a copy of the packet given to Callis in support of the fitness room project, Moss, after a cursory review of the photos, said, “What you’re showing me with those photographs can’t get mixed up with this thing.” He was pointing to Vaughan’s hand-drawn illustration of the second floor layout of the fire station, with both the meeting room and fitness room shown.

Vaughan said the space was justified in that more than 55 members of the department — active, junior and auxiliary — would have access to the facility. He noted too that under NFPA guidelines number 82 and 83, physical training was deemed essential for firefighters’ fitness and health. His third rationale for having the gym was pragmatic.

“My job is to keep them [firefighters] in the building and so if they’re in the buildings, the volunteers are here to answer the calls and they’re getting the trucks out faster.”

Moss then asked about other modifications to the building including showers in the women’s restroom — the men’s facility current has showers. Vaughan answered that the department’s 3-5 year plan called for upgrades to be made to both restroom facilities.

When Moss suggested the Town should look into creating a shared workout space that could be used by both firefighters and police, William Lewis, a life member of the department, noted “the money was given here [to the fire department] to have it [the fitness facility] right there” at the fire station. “No other department should be involved in this.”

When members of the fire committee acknowledged they were in favor of the renovations, Honeycutt asked Callis to call for an electronic vote by Council.

Callis explained such a vote would violate FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) rules. This prompted Moss to ask for a special called meeting.

“What we can and will do is as soon as we go back [is] email all the council and say the fire committee has looked at this,” said Callis. “Everyone is in agreement that renovating the kitchen for that purpose as a fitness facility is a good thing, and we will ask if there is any objection or ask for their approval. If everybody says okay, then move forward with whatever you have to do to finish that.”

Shep said, “that is the same as a vote,” a point to which Callis expressed agreement. Moss then asked, So why not just have a called meeting?”

“Because you have to have an emergency for a called meeting,” Callis answered.

Virginia law authorizes a town mayor or any two members of town council to call for a special meeting for any reason.

Honeycutt continued to press for a vote: “The public is outraged. We’re going to have a mutiny on our hands.”

As more members of the public questioned Callis’ handling of matters involving the fire department, he turned to Feggins-Boone and said, “We need to end this.” Feggins-Boone agreed and thanked the public for attending.

Late Monday, the South Hill Town Clerk sent notice of a special called meeting of Town Council. It will take place Friday, at 8 a.m. in Council Chambers.

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the wrongful attribution of a statement made during the meeting of South Hill council members at the South Hill fire station. It was Town Manager Kim Callis who said, "What we can and will do is as soon as we go back [is] email all the council and say the fire committee has looked at this." The original article incorrectly attributed this remark to South Hill Council member Shep Moss. The Sun has corrected the error online and will publish a correction in our print edition on June 30.)

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